Nicholas Meriwether: Innovator and Advocate for Grateful Dead Scholarship

Dean Budnick on May 22, 2024
Nicholas Meriwether: Innovator and Advocate for Grateful Dead Scholarship

“There’s a tremendous array of interesting, deep work being done on the Grateful Dead. It’s a great time to be paying attention and to be thinking about all of this stuff,” Nicholas Meriwether asserts. He certainly has the perspective to make such a pronouncement, having spent much of his career in an academic environment writing about social and cultural history, with a keen focus on the Grateful Dead.

Meriwether is currently the executive director of the Grateful Dead Studies Association and oversees its journal. He is also the editor of the new Studies in the Grateful Dead series from Duke University Press, which issued two books in 2023 (John Brackett’s Live Dead: The Grateful Dead, Live Recordings, and the Ideology of Liveness and Michael Kaler’s Get Shown the Light: Improvisation and Transcendence in the Music of the Grateful Dead). His own papers and presentations have appeared in multiple settings, including two volumes that he initiated, Reading the Grateful Dead: A Critical Survey (2012) and All Graceful Instruments: The Contexts of the Grateful Dead Phenomenon (2007). In 2010, he became the founding Grateful Dead Archivist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a position he held for six years.

In certain respects, Meriwether’s work parallels that of his father, James B. Meriwether, a pioneering scholar who championed the work of William Faulkner at a time when Faulkner’s novels had fallen into disfavor and out of print. Meriwether acknowledges, “My father was enormously conservative—he was definitely from a different generation— but toward the end of his life, he came to understand that my approach to the Dead was analogous to his approach to Faulkner. He wanted to make Faulkner safe for grad students to study. He wanted to make Faulkner acceptable to the academy. In many ways, that’s been what I’ve tried to do with the Grateful Dead.”

What initially led to you to envision the Grateful Dead as an academic pursuit?

It hearkens back to coming of age in the Reagan ‘80s. I went to college in the fall of 1983 and graduated in ‘87. That was a time in which the Reagan mainstream was in the ascendancy. It was a time when everybody who was getting a college degree seemed to want to go into investment banking. Unalloyed greed was writ large in the culture and celebrated. It accompanied a kind of right-wing Republicanism that repudiated every aspect of the 1960s. It came to power on a cultural warfare agenda that was all about denigrating the ‘60s, which never struck me as being particularly persuasive.

I was born in December of 1964, so I’m technically the very tail end of the Baby Boom generation. So the ‘60s were always one of those things that shaped the world I was in. Then the rise of Reagan was repudiating and distorting all that. At the time, I only had sort of an inkling that “Methinks the Reaganites doth protest too much,” but I didn’t really understand exactly why.

So in college, I started reading a lot of ‘60s materials at the same time that I was meeting Deadheads. I hadn’t known the Dead in high school, but growing up in South Carolina, I was exposed to tons of blues, bluegrass, jazz and gospel—all of the sources and roots of the Grateful Dead’s music.

When a roommate of mine who was from California started talking about the Grateful Dead, I really didn’t have any idea. I kind of reacted to the name and thought, “Oh, well that’s like heavy metal. I’m not really interested.” Then he said, “No, you’ve got to listen to them.” So he put on Skull and Roses, and I thought it was a fantastic album. The thing that really captivated me was “Wharf Rat.” I thought it was one of the most exquisite pairings of lyric to music and musical structure that I had ever heard.

So at that point, it was a pretty quick step to start listening to friends’ bootlegs, and then I went to my first show in fall of 1985. There was such incredible integrity and intelligence coming off that stage. When I walked out of the show and my friends asked me: “So what’d you think?” I said, “I will think about this for the rest of my life.”

There was another aspect as well. Growing up in South Carolina, I had been raised to have a keen appreciation for outsider art, for Gullah crafts, for all of these marginalized populations and their creative expressions. I walked out of that first show—this was at Brendan Byrne in the Meadowlands—and I bought my first Deadhead pot pipe. I thought it was another amazing sign of how Deadheads were this stigmatized, despised group, but when you scratch the surface, they did crafts, they did tie-dye art, they made these beautiful pipes. It was just a wonderful scene and there was something very attractive about the fact that they could produce art and beauty while they were being dismissed, marginalized and misunderstood.

That resonated with me because I was a South Carolinian going to college in New Jersey [Princeton]. There, I saw a very similar reaction to the South and misunderstandings toward the South from folks who were not Southerners. So there was kind of an interesting synergy to the way all of those things knit together to work for me.

When did you begin to examine all of these connections in a more formal setting?

I was invited to give a lecture to a high school class in 1987, the summer after I graduated college. An older friend was teaching summer school, and he said, “Come and talk to my class about the Dead.” So I wrote a lecture about the Grateful Dead and that was the first time where I actually sat down and tried to write about the band, the music, the scene, the phenomenon and the history. It immediately became this 14-hour lecture, which was not possible, so I trimmed it down into 90 minutes. But at the end of that, I thought, “There’s so much more, I’ve barely even scratched the surface.”

Then after that, I went off to graduate school. Ten years later, I ended up hearing about Rob Weiner, who is a librarian at Texas Tech and started a Grateful Dead area at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association. I found out about the very first meeting right after it happened in 1998. Then Rob managed to track me down and sent me a CFP for the next year, which was when I gave a paper on “It Must Have Been the Roses” and William Faulkner.

I was hooked right away at that conference, and I said, “There are two things that we need. Number one, we need a scholarly journal. And number two, there is enough good work being done here for it to merit an anthology of academic articles.” The journal was called Dead Letters, and I did four volumes of that [from 2001-2009]. It sort of laid the groundwork for what became the Grateful Dead Studies Association. As for the book, it took a long time to find a publisher, but it finally came out in 2007—it’s called All Graceful Instruments.

You’ve certainly helped facilitate a sea change, where Grateful Dead scholarship has become viable within academe. As you look back, how do you perceive that paradigm shift?

I definitely did what I could do, but I didn’t create the interest. The band created the interest in all of the scholars who gave papers and wrote essays and taught classes. There is a widespread sense among the scholars who study the Dead that the Dead not only call for and reward academic scrutiny but that this goes along with the foundational ideals and goals of scholarship.

I think all that comes from the Dead themselves, who are enormously bright. They were also such good students of the music and the ideas that they transmitted to us. A big part of why there are so many scholars drawn to study the Dead is because the Dead modeled that kind of behavior.

There’s also a basic sense in which the idea of sharing and teaching is inextricably bound into the Dead’s music and the broader phenomenon. It really resonates with the goals of scholarship. The music, the exposition, the performance—all those aspects of the Dead merit good scholarly exposition and explication.

When you originally entered grad school, what did you anticipate for yourself in terms of your career?

I went to grad school originally to do a really safe and sober topic, which was going to be mid-19th century American cultural history with a real focus on the South. I was looking for something that was interesting, colorful and at variance with the general drift of the mainstream South toward sectionalism, division and the Civil War. But it turned out all that was depressing. It didn’t help that I was doing this in England [at Cambridge University].

Then I met this wonderful third-year student who was writing a dissertation on Motown, Civil Rights, lyrics and protests. He was having such a great time, while I was not, so I decided to switch my dissertation topic, expanding it to counterculture bohemianism with a longer sweep in American history from the 1820s all the way through the end of the 1960s.

I was amazed that they let me switch my topic, but then my dissertation director died and I could not find anyone to pick me up. So that sort of sent me into a series of interesting lateral moves where I ended up coming to San Francisco. I had written a lot of academic nonfiction, and I wanted to see if I could be a better writer at that point. So I started writing lots of non-academic stuff, for little newspapers and literary magazines, trying to knock the academic jargon out of my prose. I did that and then, through a series of happenstance—I was still writing academically—a piece that I had written got picked up by someone at the University of South Carolina.

So I ended up going back to South Carolina, where the Rare Books and Special Collections Library at the university asked me to do a job for them. I had done a lot of interviews at that point, and they asked me to be their first oral historian. So I ended up getting my library degree, focusing on oral history and archives, while I was working for the South Caroliniana Library. That’s what got me back into academe.

How long were you in that role?

I was at South Carolina from 2003-2010. In 2008, UC Santa Cruz got the Dead archive, but they reached out to me a year earlier and said, “We’re thinking about doing this. Can we do it? Should we do it?” I said, “Yes, you should, and here’s how.” Then in 2008, they flew me out. I wasn’t looking for a job and I don’t think they were looking to hire anyone, but I basically explained to them what they were going to encounter and the ways they should handle it. At that point, it was a really big, complicated archive that was more a series of accruals rather than what any archivist would consider to be an actual archival collection. It was essentially an accidental archive. There was enormous potential, but there was a challenging set of scenarios and circumstances.

So I gave them lots of advice. Then, I guess it was in 2010, one of the librarians came to the Grateful Dead area of the SWPCA—at that point, I had been area chair for several years—and she said, “We’re going to have to create an archivist position. We’d like you to apply.” So I did and I was at Santa Cruz from 2010-2016. Then, at that point, they wanted to go in a different direction, and I wasn’t really interested in that.

I remember reading an interview with you shortly after you took that job, where you said that, to your mind, the standard of success relative to the archive would be how many scholarly monographs the material yielded. Assuming you still believe that is a fair standard, how do you think that has played out?

 It is very much a fair standard, although there has been a real push in recent years among archivists to view archives as being more pedagogical vehicles. I have this sort of relentlessly old-fashioned idea of the basic metric of an archive being how much good scholarly work it can support. I think that’s especially valid and important when you’re dealing with young subjects. So for me, applying that old[1]fashioned metric to the Grateful Dead archive was kind of natural, because that was my own orientation, which was to see if the Grateful Dead could become an accepted topic of study— something that a grad student can do without fear of damaging their CV and something that a mature scholar can do and have it count toward tenure. Then, beyond that, you need the work to be interesting and valid and cast light on the wider context of American history, culture, art and all of that expression. I think in that sense, the archive has not necessarily met those goals.

There was a remarkable statement made before I arrived, that the archive had every single show file of every single concert the Grateful Dead had ever given, starting with the very first Acid Test. I remember reading that and saying, “That’s insane and absurd.” Anybody who knows anything about the Acid Tests knows that there are no show files. Anyone who knows anything about the way cultural history works knows that a bunch of 18, 19 and 22-year-old pot-smoking, acid-dropping hippies are not going to be building good coherent business files. By then, Dennis McNally’s wonderful, magisterial history of the band, A Long Strange Trip had already come out, and he made it quite clear that when Lenny Hart, the band’s manager in 1969 and ‘70, absconded with the band’s funds, he also took all of their business files from that era. So I was skeptical that there would be much before 1970, and it all turned out to be true. They also didn’t have any of the business records.

So one of the first things that I set about doing was trying to sweet-talk the remaining band members and the band organization into entrusting Santa Cruz with as much of the business records as I could persuade them to provide. Then, in 2012, the first real business records arrived.

Also, when I got there, there was an archival practice that said that if ephemera were published, it could be safely jettisoned. So, for example, if you had a file of newspaper clippings and the newspapers were easily available, why would you keep them? That would just be a waste of space. Thankfully, I managed to prevent that from happening. The first thing that I said was, “Hey, at least we’ve got a really good press-clipping file.” It had somehow even survived Lenny’s depredations.

One of the most remarkable things about that was the band had subscribed to a clipping service in 1966 when they were making no money. There was a clipping service on Mission Street in San Francisco, and they subscribed to it. I thought that was a wonderful bit of insight into their understanding that their work was going to have a media angle, and that, at the end of the day, if they wanted to sell tickets and get an audience, they needed to pay attention to their media image.

So one of the first things I did was process all of the newspaper clippings. Given the way the Dead handled their relations with the press—most bands repeat the same stories but the Dead did not—the press clippings ended up being a remarkable anecdotal basis for a lot of good work. That’s proven to be true by how many scholars have managed to make use of it. Peter Richardson is the guy who really did a wonderful job with that. He’s a fine media and literary scholar who got his degree at Berkeley and taught for years at San Francisco State. He did a book called No Simple Highway, which I think is one of the first really great books to come out of the archive.

At this moment in time, what aspects of Grateful Dead scholarship energize you? What’s being explored in new and novel ways?

It’s been a real pleasure to have the Duke series take off. Readers are going to be particularly interested in Michael Kaler’s work. Everyone who’s gone to a Grateful Dead show or a related show, knows there’s a kind of spiritual, almost religious quality to the experience. I think that particular quality is something that begs for scholarly treatment, and Michael Kaler has done a magnificent job of that in his book, so I recommend it highly. We’ve also got three more books that are brewing right now and even more coming up after that.

One of the advantages that I have from my perch as series editor of the Duke series, and as editor of the Proceedings of the Grateful Dead Studies Association and the journal Grateful Dead Studies, is I can see interesting work being done across all domains. It’s literary, it’s musical, it’s cultural, it’s sociological. For example, there’s a wonderful scholar who’s doing work on Bobby Petersen’s connections and time in Mexico.

There’s a series of papers being given at the Grateful Dead Studies Association conference [which took place in late March] on Robert Hunter’s wonderful book-length poem on the first Gulf War, “A Strange Music.” There is interesting work being done across all of that, not only chronologically, but also thematically and contextually. I would say, at this stage, that all these aspects continue to be unfolding in really fascinating and unpredictable ways.